From act to action: (Meta)pragmatic instruction with young EFL learners in Norway

Authors

Anders Otterbech Jølbo Myrset
https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4924-4797
Keywords: English pragmatics, primary school learners, L2, EFL learners

Synopsis

This doctoral research project is a case study of the impact of teaching English pragmatics to Norwegian primary school learners in 7th grade (aged 12-13). The importance and the impact of teaching second/foreign language (L2) pragmatics have been much discussed in both empirical and theoretical work, shifting the focus from whether pragmatics is teachable to the affordances of various teaching approaches. However, the evidence is largely based on (young) adult learners, with young language learners (YLLs) comprising an underexplored group. Similarly, YLLs’ development of pragmatic ability, i.e. ability to produce and interpret language in context, and metapragmatic awareness, i.e. reflections about language use, remain largely uncharted waters. Hence, the discussions about how L2 pragmatics can be taught and researched are largely informed by research with older language learners.

This forms the backdrop for the present doctoral study, which specifically investigates the impact of teaching L2 requests to the target group. The impact of instruction is explored through the learners’ request production, their use of scientific concepts to express metapragmatic understandings, and their engagement with the project. Informed by sociocultural theory (SCT), the instruction adopted a concept-based approach to teaching L2 pragmatics to two intact classes in a Norwegian primary school. The overarching aim of the instruction was to foster agency, that is to promote the learners’ ability to make informed choices in communication. In addition, the study was influenced by the growing body of literature on research with children, which aims to enable them to express their views and be listened to, that is, to give them a voice. Informed by this view, the current study included a focus on giving learners a voice through the use of innovative data elicitation techniques. This thesis is the synopsis of an article-based Ph.D. which comprises four articles (I-IV).

Article I presents a systematic review, investigating the data elicitation techniques used in prior research exploring YLLs’ metapragmatic awareness, i.e. their verbalised reflections about language use, contextual considerations, and/or their interplay. The review revealed that previous research was sparse and that the elicitation techniques employed largely mirrored those used with adults. In light of these findings and informed by literature on research with children, the article presents three elicitation techniques, developed and used by the authors in research projects with learners aged 9-13, with aims to scrutinise their affordances.

Article II investigates the impact of the instruction on the learners’ request production strategies. The data was collected through a video-prompted oral discourse completion task (VODCT), which was administered in a pre-post-delayed design, enabling the researcher to investigate both short- and long-term changes in strategy use following the instruction. These changes were measured through statistical tests. The study revealed significant longer-term retention of some request strategies, e.g. internal modification through modal verbs, whilst others revealed no significant changes.

Article III explores the learners’ use of scientific concepts to express their metapragmatic understandings. The analysis was conducted through a framework aiming to identify metapragmatic episodes and subsequently three excerpts were analysed in-depth to explore how the learners used in discussions the scientific concepts introduced during the instruction. The study revealed that, although used relatively infrequently in the dataset as a whole, scientific concepts were used to discuss the importance of linguistic variation, the communicative value of hints, and to compare strategies in the first language (L1) and the L2. Thus, the study reveals a potential for teaching pragmatics through concept-based approaches.

Finally, Article IV investigates how the learners appraised various components of the project, including the different data elicitation techniques, and how they explained their appraisals. The study revealed that the target of instruction (requests) presented a novel topic, which the learners found engaging and relevant. In addition, the learners were positive to their perceived learning outcomes and to the focus on choices related to requests of which they became aware. The study provides valuable insights into YLLs’ engagement in pragmatics research and the importance of giving them a voice in projects of this kind.

First and foremost, the thesis contributes to our limited understanding of whether and how pragmatics can be taught with YLLs, both generally and within SCT-informed instructional pragmatics research. From the perspective of SCT-informed instruction, the instructional approach employed presents a novel focus: whilst prior research has employed concept-based approaches for teaching L2 pragmatics with adults, the present study is, to the best of the author’s knowledge, the only one of its kind to investigate the affordances of such approaches with YLLs. The study shows that an explicit focus on pragmatics is indeed feasible with YLLs and that the focus of instruction and the teaching approaches resonated with the learners (Articles II, III, and IV). In addition, since YLLs’ voices have largely been under-communicated within the field of instructional pragmatics, this thesis contributes to addressing this gap (Articles I and IV). The thesis contributes to our understanding of the affordances of explicit instruction with YLLs through concept-based approaches, both from the perspective of teaching practice and research, and adds to the knowledge about participant-friendly methodologies aiming to promote, and ultimately act upon, children’s perspectives in pragmatics research.

Author Biography

Anders Otterbech Jølbo Myrset

University lecturer
Department of Education and Sports Science
Faculty of Arts and Education
University of Stavanger
anders.myrset@uis.no

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Published
December 21, 2021